“How long have they been down there?”
“I’d say about three weeks.”
“This won’t be pretty.” Christopher Allen looked over the dark water at an unanchored inflatable Zodiac. Three recovery specialists attempted to snag an amorphous shape with a twelve-foot pike pole near the middle of a lake. The shape—a bloated body, blue-green and gray—bobbed up and down on the water like discarded whale blubber whacked off with a mincing knife, then left in the sun to rot.
“Thing is, we never would have known if it weren’t for that floater out there.”
“God bless the little miracles.” Allen, all of six feet four inches, wiry with a tuft of red hair poking out of a black ball cap, put his hand on Bradley Clarke’s shoulder. The two men, both in their mid-fifties, had been inseparable over the past three years as they bounced from lake to sea, river to canyon, pond to glacier leading a team of recovery specialists picking up the remains of people who either had poor judgment or poor luck. It was difficult to tell, in some cases. It was also difficult to tell which of the two leaders was in charge.
A few small waves drifted to the grass-mottled shore as the light of the afternoon ebbed away. Algae bobbed up and down like a puke green shirt in the wind. The temperature had been steady most of the day—chilly—while clouds hung in the sky in ways elephants don’t, even if they did look like elephants to those trying to find shapes in clouds. They were large and gray enough, although in the Pacific Northwest this was all too common.
“What are you thinking?” Clarke picked at something between his teeth with a toothpick.
“It’s gloomy.” Allen remained silent for a moment, rubbed his nose, then sighed. Marker buoys bobbed up and down on the water near the Zodiac. “How many did the divers find so far?”
“Twenty-nine, but it’s blackwater so unless the bodies are grouped together like a forest of souls, we won’t get an accurate count until we scrape the bottom.”
“So far. The feet are fitted into weighted shoes, except for our guy out there. Might have slipped them off for comfort.”
Allen shook his head. Fitted into weighted shoes. It was too neat. He feared there were more than twenty-nine bodies under the water. This would not be a clean recovery.
The man working the pike pole pulled the floater to the side of the Zodiac. From their distance on the shore, it was difficult to tell if the body was male, but its appearance gave the impression of a heavyset man despite the bloating of the body. A sudden flutter of activity and a few shouts of expletives caused Clarke to raise his radio to his mouth. “Recovery One, report.”
The radio hissed. “Body’s falling apart. Bet they’ve been down a long time. Pulled a chunk of flesh off an arm.”
Clarke clicked a button. “Use a tarp and litter.”
“We’re getting it ready right now.”
A drop of cold rain hit Allen’s arm. “Thoughts?”
Clarke gazed out over the water. His right eye twitched, a sign to Allen that his partner was deep in thought going through as many scenarios as possible. He ran a calloused hand over a balding pate. “Not an organized crime thing. Too many bodies dumped at what seems to be the same time. Suicide pact, maybe, but it seems like a stupid way to go all at once. That many people, too. There would probably be reports of missing people over the past few weeks pouring in. None of the towns nearby reported anything out of the ordinary.”
Allen grunted. “What is ordinary out here?”
“Pot heads and wilderness junkies. A few loggers. Never was comfortable on this side of Olympia.”
The two were silent as the work continued on the water in front of them.
After a few minutes, Allen spoke. “How long before we get help?”
This was a sore point for the recovery team. They were state contractors, and their willingness to deploy and work in remote areas had allowed them a bit of latitude with the bureaucracy and paperwork that came with recovery efforts previously handled by local sheriffs. That was the benefit. The assumption of the powers that be and the powers that funded their operation, though, was that the team could handle most recoveries on their own and let local jurisdictions deal with their own problems, problems that had escalated in recent months to include looting, murder, kidnapping and a general loss of all things civil. It was obvious, however, that this recovery was different, and while the location was remote, it was not too far removed from the logging roads any help would use when they brought in their trucks towing all the right equipment.
In addition, the stranger the recovery, the more likely the big dogs would want in near the beginning. One or two of them might even pack hiking shoes. The media implications on their own were astounding, and tragedies like this are what drove budget increases.
“We might see a crew from Seattle in a day,” Clarke said. “Under the circumstances, I think it may be a good thing we have to wait. Too many people to get in the way. The divers will have surveyed enough by tomorrow, so we can probably get a good bit of the work done before the barriers go up and the paperwork starts.”
“So, what does that leave us?”
Clarke looked pensively at the marshy shoreline of the lake. “Don’t know. According to satellite recon, there’s a camp about three miles down the river. Probably hippies who think it’s 1972 and running away from the Big Bad. Don’t know if there’s anyone home, though.”
“The Big Bad?”
“Yeah. You know, the ‘gubmint’ as they say. Anyway, I sent Virgil and Tyler down there to see if they heard anything. The nearest other settlement is thirty-odd miles near the coast.”
Allen looked to his left toward the mouth of the river, bounded on both sides by Sitka spruce, western hemlock, mosses, ferns and lichens festooning the tree trunks and branches. “They walk?”
“Through that? No.” Clarke snorted once and spit something into the water. “They’re in a canoe.”
Virgil Timmons looked down at a GPS unit mounted to the bow deck. Thirteen years as a Navy a-ganger on a submarine, two more as a fire fighter, then a stint as a prison guard, the one thing he was never good at was navigating the open air. If confined to a smoke-filled, darkened passageway four feet wide and six feet tall looking for a piece of lint, no problem. Standing in a large open field on a sunny day looking for a barn, however, gave him fits. Thanks to GPS, he could fake it. “There should be a dock ahead.”
Draped in fog, the visibility on the river was little more than twenty feet. Strands of mist swirled around the canoe as the two rhythmically sliced the water with their oars.
“How could anyone live in a place like this?” Tyler Ramos wrinkled his face, then put his oar back in the water. “You’d have to have nerves of steel to deal with all the silence.”
“Smoke enough weed or eat enough mushrooms and it doesn’t seem so bad.”
“You think we’ll find anyone?” Tyler asked.
“I would have thought we’d hear Bob Dylan or some stoned kid playing Cat Stevens by now, so unless they’re sleeping, no.”
“Getting a little dated in your references, there.”
“Blame my parents.”
Virgil and Tyler simultaneously stopped rowing and let the canoe drift. The gray clouds merged with the mist along the water and the dense forest on either side, lending a confined feel to the scene. Old-growth trees crowded the banks of the river. A few logs, rotted and covered in mosses, jutted out.
“At least this isn’t swift water. Why couldn’t we get the Zodiac again?”
Virgil looked behind the canoe and then forward again, ignoring the question. As river water gently lapped at the side of the canoe, the uneven lines of an old dock materialized along a bank to the right. Wordlessly, the two recovery specialists drifted toward it until they were close enough to throw out a mooring line and tie off. Above the dock, just past the edge of the river, they barely made out a few poorly constructed buildings. The sun sat at the perfect angle to merge shadow with sky, a natural effect that created spooky where there was already eerie. Virgil hopped out of the canoe first. His hand instinctively grabbed onto the butt of his holstered side arm.
“Gonna shoot a hippie?” Tyler said in a low voice as he hopped onto the deck behind Virgil. The wood creaked in response to their combined weight, but aside from a few deep breaths taken in the cold air and a chirp or two from deep in the forest, there was no other sound.
Virgil ignored his partner once more and brought a radio to his mouth. “Base, Recovery Two.”
Clarke’s voice cracked back. “Recovery Two, Base. Report.”
“We’re on a dock right where the camp should be, but from here it looks abandoned.”
“Recon and report back. You don’t want to stay too long and lose light.”
“Roger. Recovery Two out.” Virgil clipped his radio to his belt as Tyler drew a heavy-duty flashlight. The two walked tentatively forward until they were off the dock and standing in mud. As they approached the camp, abandonment seemed the most likely scenario. There were adobe huts, wooden shacks and dirty canvas tents that stretched out on the shore of the river and into haphazardly cleared areas of the forest. The buildings were held together poorly, some with nails, some with rope, some with nothing more than the weight of four walls leaning against each other. The muddy walkways snaked through the structures with no pattern, cutting right, then left, then right again. Weeds grew in congested numbers between the buildings, in gutters, and poked through cheaply constructed front porches.
The silence overwhelmed, and Virgil grew uncomfortable. After five minutes, the two stopped. They scanned the empty walkways and peered into a few open doorways and windows, looking for signs of life. Finally, Virgil took a few steps forward. He was aware that his heart echoed emptiness and loss. Life had existed here, but not in any form that would give answers. Only questions.
The two walked up to a wooden shack on their left, its roof caved in. As Tyler shone his flashlight, Virgil peered through the hole that may have served as a window. A fine layer of dust covered everything, from a makeshift table to folding lawn chairs to a bed of tattered blankets in the corner.
“Anything of interest?” Tyler asked, breaking the silence.
“A lot of nothing,” Virgil said, still peering through the window. “It looks like our campers weren’t keen on material possessions. Either that or they took everything with them.”
The two walked away from the building and over to another as a light rain began to fall. Inside, they found much of the same: a few table settings, beds made of nothing more than rags, and the remnants of a few meals. On a board holding up what may have been part of a door jamb, there was a strange carving, six perpendicular lines like three off-center Xs. Aside from that, there were few clues about the inhabitants of this camp, and that meant there was little they could report back. Every building they examined was different. The tents smelled the worst while the wooden shacks stood precipitously on their weak foundations. Whatever happened to the people, it was not catastrophic, but it was weird.
“Hello?” Tyler called out. Lapping water and the chirps of a few birds replied, but no one else. “Hello?”
They both stood ankle deep in mud for another minute, looking, listening. Finally, Virgil unclipped his radio. “Base, Recovery Two.”
“Recovery Two, Base. Report.”
“There’s nothing here. Seems to be about twenty buildings and a few tents, all run down.”
“Any sign of life?”
Virgil swung his head around right then left, taking in the scene one more time. Tyler had stepped onto a few boards that might have been a porch and was playing his flashlight around inside a building. His light stopped moving. He raised his right hand, a signal for Virgil.
“Base, stand by.”
“Roger. Standing by.”
Virgil returned his radio to his belt and followed Tyler onto the porch. “What do you see?”
Tyler’s light illuminated a table with an old reel-to-reel tape deck sitting in the middle. A red light blinked as the tape wound with the click-click-click of a full take-up reel and empty feed.
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